‘I look back and think was it really worth it?’ – Garvan on why he quit football at 29 and regrets from his time at Town
- Credit: Archant
Owen Garvan decided to call time on his professional football career not long after his 28th birthday. STUART WATSON spoke to the Irishman about that decision, as well his time at Ipswich Town under the management of Joe Royle, Jim Magilton and Roy Keane.
It’s 12pm and Owen Garvan has just started his lunch break. Back in his native Dublin, he works in the family insurance business.
“My dad started it 40 years ago, my brother took over, another one of my brothers started working here and now there’s me – so that’s four of the five boys in the family working together,” explains the former Ipswich Town midfielder.
“It’s a good craic, although every day they are on at me saying ‘you shouldn’t be sat at a desk, you should still be playing’.”
Garvan turned 32 in January. It’s been almost three years since he suddenly tore up his contract prematurely at Colchester for ‘personal reasons’. After a year playing for St Patrick’s Athletic in the League of Ireland, he hung up his boots for good in the summer of 2018.
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Why? The phrase ‘you go hard or you go home’ springs to mind as the Irishman tells his tale.
“I was all or nothing from a young age,” he explains. “I wanted it. I wanted it more than anyone else, really.
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“I always put in the hours and put in the homework. After training, all I’d think about is football. I’d be watching tapes of the opposition and who’d I’d personally be up against. Not a lot of the other lads were doing the extra though. I was thinking ‘just give yourself the best chance’.
“If I’m being honest, I’d seen a lot of players just going through the motions during my career and I didn’t want to be that guy. I didn’t want to do that to myself and I didn’t want to do that to football.
“I didn’t go into football for the money. I got into it to play games and win.
“I wouldn’t say I fell out of love with the game, but I did get a bit disheartened by the industry. Joe Royle always said ‘beautiful game, horrible business’ and he’s right.”
Asked what he meant by that, the Irishman says: “One thing I found hard was the incredible turnover of players and staff. Some lads you’d only know their nicknames. You wouldn’t find out their last name because they’d arrive, play four loan games and then leave again. That’s when you realise it’s just a job for so many.
“It’s hard to get a good bond as a team and as a squad when that’s always happening. I probably had that bond twice in my career – playing youth team football, then when I went to Crystal Palace. It’s no coincidence that those were the two periods when I had my most success.”
There are obvious comparisons to make with Shane Supple given the pair both played for the same youth team in Ireland and both arrived at Ipswich at same time aged 15. Supple, disheartened with the professional game, quit when he was just 20 to return to the Emerald Isle. Garvan lasted a little beyond his 28th birthday before calling it a day.
“It’s a tough industry,” said Garvan. “Some players’ careers just go up and up and up, but for others they can go up, then down, then up again. Everyone’s story is different.
“I’ve had a lot of chats with players over the years, especially the Irish, Scottish, Welsh boys who have left their families at a young age, who just want to go home and give it up. You can dedicate so much and then get incredibly frustrated if you feel you’re not getting out of it what you deserve.
“I know people will say ‘you don’t work 9-5, you earn good money’, but the bottom line is those frustrations are the same for anyone in any job that feels they aren’t being rewarded or achieving what they should.
“You hear a lot of players say ‘I’ll be telling my kids to go into an individual sport like golf or tennis because success there is entirely down to you’. In football there are so many factors beyond your control. No matter how hard you work, you also need a lot of luck.”
With his dad Gerry as manager, Garvan was part of a Home Farm side that went unbeaten in the Irish youth leagues for three years between 1999 and 2002. Several of that team were snapped up by Celtic, while Garvan moved to Ipswich. A year later he was part of a Blues side that won the FA Youth Cup. At the start of the following season Garvan had made his senior debut in the Championship. In short, up the age of 17, all he had known was success.
Subsequently there were ups and downs during his five senior seasons with Town (more on that later). Three good years with Palace followed, culminating in a Championship Play-Off Final win at Wembley. Just two Premier League appearances came after that though and, after brief loan stints back in the Championship with Millwall and Bolton, he was released.
Mick McCarthy opted not to bring him back to Ipswich after a trial in 2015. Instead, Garvan signed for League One side Colchester.
“I wasn’t the quickest player in the world,” he says, looking back on that period. “Maybe that went against me as time went on. The game has gone down the road of pure athletes over the last 10 years. It’s a very intense game now. I’d struggle to name you a player in the Premier League who is slow.”
The U’s were relegated under Garvan’s captaincy and a pre-season injury delayed his start to the next season. Come April, with John McGreal’s men heading for a mid-table finish in the fourth tier, the midfielder decided he’d had enough.
“Colchester was becoming a club based very much around youth players because they had no other choice,” he says.
“I still wanted to push, win promotions, go through the leagues, but it felt like a club that was going nowhere really. I became frustrated and thought ‘what am I going to do now?’
“I remember getting into the Ipswich team at 17, playing with lads who were in their 30s and thinking ‘this is different, they’re not messing around here’. I was desperate to reach those standards.
“All of a sudden I was the older player at Colchester surrounded by 17-year-old lads who had grown up in a different era. They’re all on their phones doing ‘Tik Tok’ or whatever. I saw these young lads messing about, not taking it seriously, and I was thinking ‘you don’t know how lucky you are’. It didn’t seem to dawn on them, being a 17-year-old at a League Two club, that their career was in the balance.
“People tell me Kane Vincent-Young is doing really well at Ipswich – now there’s a young lad I saw coming through who really wanted it. I saw from day one that he was going to have a career because his attitude was right. There wasn’t enough like him though.”
He continues: “I’d been in England since the age of 15, away from family for 13/14 years, and I just thought ‘what’s the point in going through the motions?’ That’s not me.
“I had another year and a bit to go on my contract, but I left in the middle of a season. I’d had a good run at it and it was time to go home.
“I could have got another League Two or League One club maybe. It just didn’t suit me going somewhere else in England, moving house and not knowing anybody. There were offers from abroad, in Australia and the USA, but I just felt that even if I won the league in a country like that it wouldn’t really mean anything to me. People would have thought ‘he’s just having a holiday’.
“I thought ‘I’ve done what I can in my career, made my sacrifices, it’s time to go home’. I didn’t want to drag it out for a few more years just to get a few more bob in the bank.
“For me, you’re either all in or you’re not in at all. You can’t go half-hearted at anything or you get found out.
“I played semi-pro for a bit but soon thought ‘no, I’m going to give that up too’. I knew people were thinking ‘he’s just here for the money, he’s not fussed about winning things’. So I just decided to stop completely.
“Life after football would had to have started at some point. I see a lot of players who struggle with that transition, they don’t know what to do with themselves having had their lives so structured for 15 years. All of a sudden they are not playing in stadiums and on TV, not earning the same money. Luckily, I knew the family business.”
Garvan adds: “I do look back on all the time I was stuck in digs and I didn’t really know anybody, all the things I missed out on because I’d put so much into the game, and I think ‘was it really worth it?’” -----
‘Regret’ is a word Garvan uses a lot when he reflects on his time at Ipswich Town.
Regret that the FA Youth Cup winning side of 2005 disbanded so quickly. And regret that Jim Magilton’s Class of 2007-2009 didn’t achieve Championship promotion.
“You go into the game wanting to win trophies and have success,” he says. “Obviously we won the Youth Cup and, looking back, that was a big thing when you consider the teams that have won it since. It’s been Chelsea, Liverpool, the Manchester clubs. I think we were the last Championship club to win it.
“Not many of us broke through and sustained a run in the first team though, which is disappointing.
“The expectation is that maybe five or six of you all get into the first team together and sustain that for a long period of time as a group, but that didn’t really happen.
“Obviously it happened for me and one or two others, but not many ended up having solid 10-year careers at that level or higher. So many of them played five or six games and then dropped down the leagues. A few years after we’d lifted the trophy, most of them weren’t even at the club anymore.”
Garvan was handed his senior debut by Joe Royle just a few months after that Youth Cup triumph (the midfielder missed the second leg of the final against Southampton after being hospitalised by a virus). He started 29 Championship games as a teenager in that breakthrough campaign.
“I’ll always have a soft spot for Joe,” says Garvan. “He was a wise head. You could sense he’d been around the game a long time. In general he was very relaxed, but when he got angry he would lose it.”
After a 15th place finish, Royle, having previously delivered two play-off finishes in the post administration years, departed. All of a sudden, Garvan’s former midfield team-mate Magilton had become his boss.
“When I made my debut at 17, he was the captain,” he recalls. “That day he greeted me at Portman Road, walked me down the tunnel and pointed to my jersey hanging up in the dressing room. He said ‘look, there’s your name, you could have that shirt for the next 10 years’. That meant a lot.
“Jim was a good character, I liked him. He was very volatile. I had a few rollickings, but that’s part and parcel of football. For me, that was just passion and a sign of how much he wanted to win.
“Some players make the transition to management and then try to change everything about their personalities. One minute they are at the centre of the laughs, the next they are trying to be deadly serious. You can’t do that. People know who you are and respect you for it. You have to keep doing what you were doing.
“Jim’s penultimate year, that was the year we could have really kicked on (Town finished eighth). I speak to fans now and they say ‘you were great that year’, but we barely won an away game! Because the fans mainly see the home games though they look back on it that way.
“The year Jim left we were mid-table and weren’t really around it. The atmosphere wasn’t good. We should have been doing better.
“Time can change how people look back on things. A club changes manager, the situation actually gets worse and people suddenly go ‘we were doing better before’. It’s a bit like the post Mick McCarthy debate that I see is going on with Ipswich now.”
Magilton was, of course, replaced by Roy Keane – a player Garvan had grown up idolising as a young midfield player in Ireland.
“When I first heard the news, like everyone, it was like ‘wow’,” he says. “He was one of the biggest names in football, he’d got Sunderland promoted and we thought he was going to come to Ipswich and get us promoted.
“Sometimes a manager’s personality fits at certain clubs and doesn’t at others though. I don’t think he was the right fit for Ipswich. From the get go there was a fear factor.
“For me, it wasn’t a problem. I just want a good professional relationship with the manager. He’s there to pick the team and I’m there to do my best. That’s it.
“The rollickings didn’t bother me. Maybe it’s because I’m Irish and we’re always having rows! A lot of the lads didn’t like it though.
“I think the bigger problem was how long things festered for. A lot of managers rant and rave on a Saturday, but come Monday they calm down and you see a different side to them. It’s like ‘listen, I had a go at you on Saturday, it’s gone, we move on’. But with Roy things weren’t being let go. Players got resentful and, yeah, they probably did down tools.
“I don’t want to talk for other people, but I just got the vibe that too many players were against him and that hindered us. It was such a divisive environment. There were just too many people he was falling out with, too many people he just disregarded.”
Garvan started 14 league games in Keane’s first full season, being used a further 11 times off the bench. Town finished 15th. Along with Alex Bruce, Alan Quinn, Colin Healy, Jon Stead, Lee Martin, Kevin Lisbie and Pablo Couñago, Garvan was one of eight players placed on the transfer list.
“It got to the week of the opening game and, on the Thursday, I was named in the team that was due to start (at Middlesbrough),” says Garvan. “Then George Burley came in for me at Palace.
“I’d been in and out the team the season before and didn’t get the sense that I was Roy’s go to midfielder. I knew that if we hit a bad run I would be one of the first to drop to the bench.
“I still thought hard about it. Do I try and stick it out at Ipswich and see where the season goes? In the end I decided it was time for a fresh challenge. It was the best thing I did.”
Reflecting further on his time at Portman Road, Garvan says: “The biggest disappointment with Ipswich is that we all felt we had a team very much capable of achieving something. If we’d have dealt with a few situations a bit better then we could have achieved promotion.
“It’s a shame because a lot of players from those teams – the likes of Jon Walters, Gareth McAuley, Damien Delaney – did go on to play in the Premier League for a long time. We had other top players like Pablo Counago and Tommy Miller. But when we were all together at Ipswich we didn’t do as well as we could for whatever reason.
“We just never could seem to get on a really good run. We’d win three games and it would be like ‘here we go’, then we’d lose one and everyone would get disheartened. We were nearly there, but just kept faltering. After a while it’s hard to keep having the same team talk over and over.
“No doubt about it, we should have achieved more than we did at Ipswich during that period. The biggest regret from career is that Ipswich didn’t get promoted to the Premier League.”